The Central California Coast is lined with all sorts of travelers’ gems—some of which are quite well-known and others that have somehow escaped mainstream attention. From Santa Cruz and Monterey to Big Sur and Morro Bay, these destinations make for some delightful stops on the drive from San Jose to Los Angeles. Along this stretch of California’s coast, you’ll find breathtaking scenery, a wide variety of wildlife, cultural hotspots, and much, much more. Keep reading to see some of the places that are well worth a slight detour on your way to LA. The City of Angels isn't known for being an affordable beach vacation, but when you make the trip a roadtrip, you'll save money and see lots of amazing sights along the way!
About an hour southwest of San Jose, you’ll find Big Basin Redwood National Park, the first state park established in California. For more than 100 years, Big Basin has been amazing visitors with its ancient coast redwoods, some of which are estimated to be over a thousand years old. With nearly 2,000 acres (and 80 miles of hiking trails) to explore, Big Basin is a monumental California attraction that you definitely don’t want to miss on your drive to LA.
The most popular trails in Big Basin include the short but enchanting Redwood Loop Trail (0.5 miles) and the rewardingly massive Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail (29.5 miles). In addition to old-growth and second-growth redwoods, Big Basin is also home to mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats, as well as waterfalls and unbelievable views of the Pacific Ocean. A few of the park’s most notable points of interest are the Founders Monument, the Father and Mother of the Forest trees, Opal Creek, Sempervirens Falls, and the Maddocks Cabin Site. Animals that you might come across in the park include woodpeckers, ravens, gray squirrels, black-tailed deer, and chipmunks.
The city of Santa Cruz is around 45 minutes south of Big Basin, and if you’re looking for a classic California beach town, this one is hard to beat! Known as “the Coney Island of the West Coast,” the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has amusement park rides, an arcade, gift shops, mini-golf, and, of course, boardwalk eats like funnel cake and cotton candy. Other Santa Cruz attractions include the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, West Cliff Drive, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, and the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanical Garden. But, if you’re looking for a more nature-infused trip to the city, you’re going to want to go to Natural Bridges State Beach, located between Terrace Point and Pyramid Beach.
As its name suggests, Natural Bridges State Beach encompasses a unique rock formation that resembles an archway—one of the most-photographed natural beach landmarks in all of California! But, this titular icon is far from the only reason to visit the park. Tidepools, trails, picnic areas, vista points, and wildlife make Natural Bridges an unforgettable experience that the whole family can enjoy. Another one of the park’s claims to fame is its butterfly preserve, which provides sanctuary for thousands of wintering monarchs. (The best time of the year to see Natural Bridges’ monarchs is from mid-October to February.)
About an hour-and-a-half south of San Jose, Monterey, California, is another fun place to stop as you’re driving down the coast to LA. Situated on the edge of Monterey Bay, Monterey is a charming town where you’ll find everything from shopping and eateries to history and art. Among Monterey’s most-talked-about attractions is Cannery Row, a bayfront district that was once used for processing—and canning—fish. Made famous by the acclaimed American author John Steinbeck when he used the street in his novel Cannery Row (1945), this segment of Monterey is now a trendy, attraction-packed destination that’s become a must-see when in the city.
One of Cannery Row’s best-known highlights is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can see penguins, sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, squids, octopuses, sea turtles, dolphins, seals, whales, and Monterey’s famous sea otters. Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is largely considered to be one of California’s top aquariums, and it’s frequently commended for its conservation efforts, as well as its contributions to the field of marine biology. While you’re at the aquarium, be sure to check the times of the daily feedings, where you can watch the trainers feed the penguins, otters, and other aquarium residents!
Carmel-by-the-Sea lies only around 15 minutes south of Monterey, and though it might be modest in size, it’s positively brimming with heritage, culture, and small-town charisma. Some of the city’s leading attractions include Carmel Beach, Sunset Center, the Clinton Walker Frank Lloyd Wright House, and Ocean Avenue. If you have any interest in local history, then one place in Carmel that you have to go is the Carmel Mission Basilica.
Established in the late 1700s by Spanish missionaries, Misión de San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo is a National and State Historic Landmark, and it continues to be an active Catholic parish and school. That being said, you certainly don’t have to be religious to appreciate the mission’s extensive backstory and traditional architecture. A multi-site attraction, the mission includes a church, gallery, and a couple of museums, where you can see artifacts, art, and other keepsakes.
Big Sur is hailed as one of the Central California Coast’s most distinguished gems—and once you see for yourself just how stunning the region is, you’re sure to fall in love with it, too. With picturesque seaside cliffs and sparkling sapphire waters, Big Sur is a photographer’s paradise, and its many parks and trails make it easy to immerse yourself in the magic. Some of Big Sur’s most-visited points of interest include Bixby Bridge, the Point Sur Lighthouse, McWay Falls, and Ragged Point. Another place in Big Sur that you have to go is Pfeiffer Beach, a secluded piece of the coastline where you’ll find the incredible Keyhole Arch.
As it turns out, Keyhole Arch isn’t the only remarkable geological aspect found at Pfeiffer Beach—some portions of the beach’s sand, inordinately rich in minerals, has a purple tint that adds an extra layer of intrigue to Pfeiffer Beach’s already gorgeous landscape. (Just a heads up: Parking can be tricky at Pfeiffer Beach, and if the designated area is full, you’ll probably have to come back later.)
Also on the Big Sur Coast is Jade Cove, an area that was once littered with jade stones, which later became known as Monterey Jade. Nowadays, you probably won’t find any jewels around this rocky cove, but the scenery here is, nonetheless, priceless. Like the rest of Big Sur, Jade Cove and its surrounding area have plenty of opportunities for hiking, beachcombing, picnicking, nature-viewing, and photography.
Just north of Jade Cove, you’ll find Sand Dollar Beach, another beautiful Big Sur beach—though, unfortunately, the name is quite deceiving in that sand dollars aren’t too common here. Sand Dollar Beach has a nearby picnic area where you can enjoy a packed lunch, and there’s also a campground not too far from the beach. These low-key beaches are the perfect place to stretch your legs, spend some time outside, and do a little exploring on your way to LA, and you couldn’t ask for a more ideal spot to get in touch with the more natural side of California.
Morro Bay is about three-and-a-half hours northwest of LA, and if you’re in the mood to visit a quaint town on your way to the big city, then don’t make the mistake of driving by Morro Bay without stopping! Whether you cast a line off of the pier, paddle a kayak across the bay, or buy a few trinkets at one of the local shops, Morro Bay will undoubtedly win your heart with its unassuming allure and welcoming atmosphere. However, no trip to Morro Bay is complete without a visit to Morro Rock Beach, where you can get some of the best views of the town’s defining symbol: Morro Rock.
Over 20 million years old and nearly 600 feet tall, Morro Rock once served as a natural navigational aid for sailors in search of the coast. Today, Morro Rock is a State Historic Landmark that doubles as a bird sanctuary for peregrine falcons and other local species. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of nesting otters or sunbathing sea lions as your walking the beach.
Oxnard is around 80 minutes southwest of LA, and with museums, beaches, markets, festivals, and parks, it makes for an offbeat yet memorable last stop before continuing on to the City of Angels. Whether you’re looking to connect with the town’s heritage or just trying to head straight to the beach, Oxnard has an activity for just about every kind of traveler. See a show at the Oxnard Performing Arts & Convention Center, peddle a surrey around town, or go whale-watching at Channel Island National Park—whatever you do, you’ll leave wanting to come back to this eclectic little town. While you’re in Oxnard, make sure that you check out Heritage Square, a vibrant social center in the city’s historic downtown.
Old-world-style architecture dating from 1876 to 1912 can be found throughout Heritage Square, and if you want to learn more about the town’s history, docent-led tours are available on the weekends for $5 a person (or $10 for a family of four!). With gardens, local businesses, community events, and an open-air plaza, Heritage Square is a unique place to take a stroll and enjoy the endearing peace and quiet of a small town before entering the (wonderful) chaos of LA.
Brimming with culture, striking scenery, and tourist attractions, LA has achieved worldwide fame as a trendsetting city that’s both an entertainment hub and an all-around influencer. From Griffith Park and Hollywood Boulevard to the Getty and Rodeo Drive, the City of Angels has a long list of places to go, things to do, and sights to see. That being said, the drive from San Jose to LA is a destination-filled journey that you don’t want to miss! Take your time as you make your way down the West Coast, and don’t be afraid to do a little exploring as you go… The Golden State is truly a land of endless opportunity—who knows what you might discover?